In the 1970s and 1980s, the multi-talented Dave Fraser brought his multiple musical talents to score everything from features and National Film Unit documentaries to television dramas and commercials. Image credit: Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-215042-F (Detail)
I don't take myself seriously, but I take my music very seriously. Dave Fraser in an interview with The Nelson Mail, 7 June 2001
If a single word could sum up the free-wheeling flavour of alternative music and comedy in Aotearoa during the 1970s, that word would surely be ... Blerta. The 'Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition' included foundation members of the NZ screen industry (Lawrence, Geoff Murphy, Alun Bollinger) plus other merry pranksters. Drawing on the Blerta TV series and beyond, Blerta Revisited (aka Blerta - The Return Trip) is an anarchic collection of comedy skits, musical interludes and films culled from the Blerta archives. Costa Botes writes about Blerta here.
This TVNZ light entertainment series takes its name from a Little Feat song but the music on offer is predominantly country. The set is barn-like but “yee ha” trappings never overshadow the performances (although big hats are in plentiful supply). Actor and musician Andy Anderson is a genial host (getting confessional at one point about his days on the “lunatic sauce”) and there are two numbers from Beaver. Bluesman Sonny Day channels Willie Nelson; the other soloists are Gray Bartlett, Brendan Beleski and Australian singer Annette Moorcroft.
This episode of TVNZ’s Avalon studio-filmed "mainly country" music show opens with The Toner Sisters, ‘Rockin' with the Rhythm of the Rain’. Introduced by host Andy Anderson as “the big D on the big P, with the big ballad”, Dalvanius bangs out ‘Just Out of Reach’ on the piano. Sharon de Bont covers ‘When Will I Be Loved’. Anderson kids around with Rob Winch and John Grenell, before Grenell gets wistful on ‘Past Like a Mask’. The Ranchsliders get things moving with Paul Simon's ‘Gone at Last’. Then Anderson leads the team for Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Sweet And Shiny Eyes’.
This episode of the 1987 "mainly country" music show starts with host Andy Anderson touting homegrown talent. Al Hunter sings about Queen Street’s neon cowboy. Auckland’s Working Holiday sing Aretha's blues number 'Won't Be Long' with harmonica player Brendan Power. Jodi Vaughan performs a plaintive country ditty. Gore’s Dusty Spittle suggests listening to Mum's advice about overdoing it, accompanied by an illustrative skit (with actors Mark Hadlow and Alice Fraser). Then it’s Andy’s favourite Kiwi singer, Hammond Gamble. All the guests jam onstage to conclude.
The Dominant Species is a loopy look at the relationship between people and cars in 1975 Aotearoa ... from an alien's eye view. Nifty animation and special effects intersperse the automotive anthropological survey of Mark IIs, VWs, anti-car activism and car-washing. There's a dream sequence involving a ladykilling Jesus Christ atop a car, and Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries scores a rugby match traffic jam (also used in a famous scene in Apocalypse Now). Filmheads will note the tripped out assembly is flush with formative industry talents (see this guide by director Derek Morton).
This 1985 New Zealand tourism promo showcases Aotearoa society and industry. As the title suggests, the NFU-made film offers an impressionistic take on the subject. Bookended by a dawn and dusk chorus, the narration-free survey cuts between primary products (milk, logs, wool etc) and their manufacturing processes, and then shows people at work and play — from futures traders to pounamu carvers, contemporary dancers to cricketers. Date stamps of the era include a mass aerobics class, hydroslide action, and saxophone and guitar solos on the soundtrack.
Shot on location, Inside Straight‘s colourful portrait of Wellington’s underworld helped usher in a new era of urban Kiwi TV dramas, far from the backblocks. Phillip Gordon (Came a Hot Friday) stars as Steve Keenan, the everyman learning the ways of the city from taxi driver Roy Billing. In this episode, Steve finds himself on the run from dodgy gamblers, while trying to raise $5000 to enter a high stakes card game. Meanwhile another card-player has hit town: conman Nick (Bruno Lawrence), who quickly starts romancing Steve’s sometime girlfriend (Joanne Simpson).
Shot on location in Wellington, often after dark, Inside Straight helped usher in a new era of Kiwi TV dramas, far from the rural backblocks. This Minder-esque portrait of Wellington’s underworld was inspired by writer Keith Aberdein’s experiences as a taxi-driver and all night cafe worker. Phillip Gordon (soon to win fame as a conman in Came a Hot Friday) stars as the former fisherman, learning the ways of the city from veteran taxi driver Roy Billing. A solid but unspectacular rater over 10 episodes, the show was scuttled by the launch of trucker’s tale Roche.
Pioneering poet, author and journalist Robin Hyde was originally Iris Wilkinson. Directed by Tony Isaac (The Governor), this ambitious co-production for television mines quotations from Wilkinson's writing to dramatise her life. In a parallel plotline, a writer, actor and director wrestle with how to capture Iris on screen. For Australian Helen Morse (Picnic at Hanging Rock) playing Iris was a privilege — and her "most difficult" role to date. Morse concluded that Iris was "extraordinarily vulnerable emotionally". This excerpt includes a cameo by the writer's real life son Derek Challis.
Mitch (Keith Aberdein) moves to Tongariro National Park to help wrangle wild horses threatening ecology and traffic. He meets Sara, who shares an obsession for a fabled silver horse. They clash with rangers and deer recovery guns-for-hire (Bruno Lawrence is the black-clad villain) determined to eradicate the horses, and a showdown on the Desert Plateau ensues. In the notoriously fraught production a stable of Kiwi acting legends perform a melange of western and freedom-on-the-range genre turns (with the conservationists oddly set up as the bad guys).
Anthropologist Max Scarry goes missing in Fiordland, while searching for a fabled Māori tribe. The local policeman believes Max broke local tapu. Max's partner Ruth sets off with his twin brother, murder suspect Edward, to try to unravel the mystery. John Laing's second feature attempts an ambitious Hitchcockian plot, and the cast — especially John Bach's terse doppelganger performance — testifies to the talent on hand in the early days of the Kiwi film renaissance. Atmospheric camerawork makes the most of damp Wellington, and remote bush settings.
In a lawless fuel wars future, marauders roam the wasteland looking for oil. Their malevolent leader Straker threatens his daughter Corlie; she’s rescued by loner Hunter and they harbour with eco-sensitive folk in the Clearwater Commune ... but not for long: there will be blood on the Central Otago plains! Following in the exhaust of Mad Max, the cult film was made during the 80s tax-break feature surge, with US director (Harley Cokliss) and leads flocking south during a Hollywood writers’ strike, and Kiwis as crew (“artists with chainsaws”) and supporting cast.
No ordinary Christmas tale, The Monster’s Christmas throws viewers into a world of friendly creatures, talking hot pools and witches with gym equipment in their cave lairs. Child find Lucy McGrath revels in the role of a plucky girl who encounters a one-eyed monster with smoke billowing from his head. The monsters need her help to steal their voices back from an evil witch. The stylings of the live action creatures were influenced by the volcanic North Island locations, and designed by Janet Williamson and cartoonist Burton Silver. Yvonne Mackay (Kaitangata Twitch) directs.
On 28 November 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mt Erebus, Antarctica, killing all 257 people on board. It was the worst civil aviation disaster in NZ history and at the time, the fourth worst in the world. Made independently of state TV, Flight 901 was the first in-depth documentary on the accident. It surveys the novelty of Antarctic tourist flights, the search and rescue operation, and controversy over causes stirred by the Peter Mahon-led Royal Commission of Inquiry. This 15 minute excerpt was edited for NZ On Screen by director John Keir.
Australian producer Antony Ginnane brought this $6 million romp to New Zealand, after Aussie union Actors Equity objected to the four lead roles going to foreigners. Deer hunting heroes Donald Pleasance (Halloween) and Ken Wahl (six years before becoming TV's Wise Guy) race around in helicopters and jet boats, after discovering a half-sunken WWll plane. This opening excerpt indicates the film's mixture of action, comedy and Southern scenery. Zephyr helped establish Aotearoa's reputation as a place to film; Ginnane and Kiwi John Barnett produced further projects together.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt reconstructs the events surrounding a notorious New Zealand miscarriage of justice. Farmer Arthur Allan Thomas was jailed for the murder of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. Directed by John Laing, and starring Australian John Hargreaves (as Thomas) and Englishman David Hemmings (Blowup, Barbarella), the drama benefitted from immense public interest in the case. Thomas was pardoned while the film was in pre-production, and he saw some scenes being made. It became New Zealand's most successful film until Goodbye Pork Pie in 1981.
Rodeo thrills and spills — Kiwi style — are on display in this documentary following two cowboys travelling the circuit in a 1950s Chrysler. They compete in events in Fairlie, Rerewhakaaitu and Warkworth, and encounter American and Australian stars along the way. Broncos, calves and bulls are ridden, wrestled or roped; but pride of place goes to spectacular shots of them using rodeo skills to capture deer by helicopter. A parade, the 'Cowboy's Prayer' and fearless rodeo clowns also feature. Legendary commercials maker Geoff Dixon (founder of company Silverscreen) directs.
A 1978 documentary that follows the attempt by three young people to be the first windsurfers to cross Cook Strait. Directed and narrated by Sam Neill (soon to be famous as an actor) for the National Film Unit. The skeptical Cook Strait pilot John Cataldo asks them: "do you wanna have a crack?" "Yeah, bloody oath" one of the surfers replies. They face the Strait's infamous winds, tides, swells, sharks and exhaustion. Some stunning helicopter shots include a windsurfer clipping through whitecaps with a pod of dolphins in its wake.
This short documentary about freestyle skiing was directed for the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department by Sam Neill (who would shortly achieve fame as an actor). This was one of several docos directed by Neill while at the National Film Unit; other subjects included the Red Mole theatre troupe and architect Ian Athfield. The skiers put on daring displays of their 'art' in locations including Mount Hutt, Queenstown and Tongariro National Park. 70s snow-styles (and beards) abound. The film was translated into French, Japanese, Italian, German and Spanish.
Solo is a story about three people on the edge of nowhere, struggling to decide how much of themselves to share with those they care about. Young Australian hitchhiker Judy romances solo Dad Paul, who finds peace flying fire patrol planes above the forest. Paul's precocious son reacts badly to losing pole position to Judy, and takes to the air. Inspired partly by the oft-painful times when we are "more acutely in touch” with our emotions, Tony Williams' romance helped launch the Kiwi movie renaissance. But as he writes in the backgrounder, there was no fun in filming it three times.
Wild Man is the missing link between 1970s musical legends Blerta, and the burgeoning of Blerta trumpeter Geoff Murphy as a director whose talents knew few bounds. The Blerta ensemble relocated to the mud-soaked West Coast to create this tale of pioneer con men and silent movie style pratfalls. Bruno Lawrence and Ian Watkin arrange a fight — and betting — in each town they arrive in, while Bruno channels his inner wild man from under a leopard skin. Wild Man was released in cinemas alongside John Clarke and Geoff Murphy’s Fred Dagg comedy Dagg Day Afternoon.
This edition of the 1976 adventure series documents a pioneering attempt to fly over Aoraki-Mount Cook by hot air balloon. RNZAF squadron leader Roly Parsons had made the first balloon crossing of Cook Strait the previous year. Director Pamela Meekings-Stewart captures his preparations to take on perilous winds and high altitudes. A first attempt with newbie co-pilot Rolf Dennler sets an altitude record, but crashes near Fox Glacier township, before Parsons pulls on his gold flight jacket for a final attempt at the challenge. Julian Dickon (Pukemanu) wrote the script.